Intracellular accumulation of abnormal proteins with conformational changes is the defining neuropathological feature of neurodegenerative diseases. The pathogenic proteins that accumulate in patients' brains adopt an amyloid-like fibrous structure and exhibit various ultrastructural features. The biochemical analysis of pathogenic proteins in sarkosyl-insoluble fractions extracted from patients’ brains also shows disease-specific features. Intriguingly, these ultrastructural and biochemical features are common within the same disease group. These differences among the pathogenic proteins extracted from patients’ brains have important implications for definitive diagnosis of the disease, and also suggest the existence of pathogenic protein strains that contribute to the heterogeneity of pathogenesis in neurodegenerative diseases.
Recent experimental evidence has shown that prion-like propagation of these pathogenic proteins from host cells to recipient cells underlies the onset and progression of neurodegenerative diseases. The reproduction of the pathological features that characterize each disease in cellular and animal models of prion-like propagation also implies that the structural differences in the pathogenic proteins are inherited in a prion-like manner. In this review, we summarize the ultrastructural and biochemical features of pathogenic proteins extracted from the brains of patients with neurodegenerative diseases that accumulate abnormal forms of tau, α-synuclein, and TDP-43, and we discuss how these disease-specific properties are maintained in the brain, based on recent experimental insights.